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Thursday, February 23, 2006

Whatever makes you feel good

"Whatever makes you feel good. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?" She asked to an office full of nods and secular equivalents of "amen" or "hell, yeah!"A friend of mine is struggling to work through a tragic loss. The wounds are still ridiculously fresh and deep. Two weeks in she’s being sustained by her anger, best I can tell. Another friend brought her gifts of new music and a statute of a Hindu goddess. Some other less new-agey, but probably still non-religious co-workers in the room seemed to look at it a little funny, so the giver seemed compelled to explain awkwardly. "Well, I’ve got one in my upstairs room where I do yoga. She just makes me feel good." To which the friend in grief said, somewhat sarcastically, "well that’s what it’s all about isn’t it? Whatever makes you feel good."

I’m thinking "no." Actually, I’m thinking "NOOOOOO!" But I keep it to myself. It’s not the time or the place. I know she’s right, at least for a lot of people. Their religion is whatever makes them feel good. It might take the form of wearing crystals and burning incense, fanatic allegiance to the state university football powerhouse, acquiring that 3,500 square foot home in the gated subdivision, early retirement, political power, personal assurance of salvation, reality tv, a strictly vegetarian diet combined with regular yoga practice, evangelical fervor, a well cared for home and family, a string of sexual conquests or nightly confessions with a Grey Goose vodka martini. If you define religion as one’s utmost concern, then a lot of people in this county who claim to be practicing Christians, (or Jews, or Buddists, or Moslems or Hindus) just ain’t.

In my book, when it comes down to "whatever makes you feel good" that sounds like a better argument for a heroin addiction than a disciplined spiritual practice (with a nod to Mr. Marx). My religion, or my spirituality isn’t what makes me feel good. As millions of others in this country and the vast percentage of people in this city, the crown jewel in the buckle of the Bible belt, I claim Christianity as my profession of faith. But not the version you see on tv. I’ve never voted for a Republican president, I plan to send my kids to public school, I’m concerned about the environment, I’m not offended by gay marriage, I’m anti-war and I’m probably more concerned about all the "born" people on the planet dying unnecessarily of disease, starvation and violence than the "unborn" who are victimized by a medical professional before they get the chance to come into the world and experience the real thing first hand. Not wanting to be a hypocrite, I have to confess I don’t know that I have much success working these ideals out in my everyday life. Still, I don’t practice Christianity to feel good. I was disillusioned of that version of religion over a decade ago. Now, I hope I adhere to the tenets of my faith to the extent that I believe them to be true.

I remember a conversation once with an atheist girl I dated briefly. She couldn’t get my "faith." Ultimately, the best answer I knew to give her was that even though I neglected or rejected my spirituality at different times in my life, I couldn’t shake it. I didn’t always want to believe, but at some level I didn’t seem to have a choice anymore. It was there. A part of who I am. Something given to me more than something I achieved or earned. Something I didn’t always want, but something I’m not sure I could truly live without.My experience includes a heck of a lot of doubt, questioning and struggling as to which parts of those things which have traditionally become a part of the practice of Christianity are valid and which are the unfortunate by-product of human involvement in the divine interaction. It’s not a crowded booth at the spirituality job fair. Assurance of salvation, absolution of guilt, and initiation into the "chosen people" are much more popular options. Our religious beliefs in this country are undeniably, in my opinion, influenced by our economic system. There’s a consumer motif and credit card mentality to too much of our spirituality. And a jingoistic nationalism. And an elitist class ethic. And I need to stop this before I start sounding too much like an angst-ridden second semester Junior year philosophy essay.

My friend needs something to help her feel a little comfort right now. Today, I can’t say that what she needs is "Truth". But someday soon she will. And the truth is there are a lot of terrible things in this world. But also a lot of beauty. Religion shouldn’t be just about making one feel good, or safe, or justified in her beliefs or prejudices, or giving someone something to cling to when she wakes up in the middle of the night wondering what happens after she dies. It should give hope, which seems like such a small word. In the midst of tragedy and suffering and violence and hatred and perversion, you have to do something to cope. You can distract yourself, anesthetize yourself, delude yourself or quit giving a damn. You can’t stare at all the horror in the world honestly and openly and survive for long. Unless you have hope. Hope isn’t an answer to life’s questions, but more an ellipsis...

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Currently Reading:
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, Mark Haddon
We Can Build You, Phillip K. Dick (I've been nostalgic for him lately)

Recently Read:
Harry Potter books 1-6, J.K. Rowland (see below)
Anna Karenina, Tolstoy
Life of Pi, Yann Martel
Norweigan Wood, Haruki Murakami

On Harry:
My wife and I are both somewhat snobbish when it comes to literature. Neither of us had read any Harry Potter till December of last year (2 months ago). She was looking for something light to read and checked the first one out from the library. She read and enjoyed it, although she kept wanting me or one of our more literate friends to read and approve of it as well so that she didn't feel like she was "slumming" in the book world. Both of us for years had assumed that anything that popular with the masses just couldn't be good literature (i.e. Stephen King, John Grisham, Danielle Steele, etc.). So for Christmas I bought her the 5 volume set of the Potter trade paperbacks. By far this was my most succesful gift purchase for her in more than 8 years of marriage. She devoured them all and borrowed the 6th from the library, finishing the entire series in less than two months. Somewhere along the way I followed her lead and began the books, was also sucked into the charm and sheer pleasure of reading dear Harry's adventures and recently finished the 6th one myself. Now we have to wait for ages for the conclusion to come out. We're too cheap to buy 2 copies, so we may have to fight over it, or I guess more romantically we could take turns reading it to each other. We were so immersed in the world of Harry, Ron and Hermione that we find ourselves feeling as if they were house guests who recently left us after a long and enjoyable visit and we're not sure what to do with ourselves.
Vast? VALIS? What’s the deal, eh?

Fair enough. What is the deal. I knew I would have to do this eventually, so let’s get this behind us.

VALIS is a few things. Primarily the title of a 1981 book by Phillip K. Dick (PKD). Within the book itself, it is an acronym for Vast Active Living Intelligence System - an extraterrestrial intelligence that may or may not be God. I read the book for the first time in the mid-1990s. Around the same time I started using the internet. It seemed a clever ruse to use the acronym as a user name (back then, more often than not it was available) on websites when floating about on this vast active evolving communication system known as the Internet. Ghost in the machine, that kind of deal. Of course a lot of people have that idea now and I couldn’t even use VALIS as a user name on blogspot without adding in some numbers. Humbling.

Up until a few years ago, the best way to explain who PKD was to the uninitiated was to ask if they’d seen or heard of the movie Bladerunner. It came out in 1982, the year coincidentally that Dick died (1928-1982, almost a palindrome for his tombstone). Bladerunner, an excellent film in its own right by Ridley Scott, is loosely based on a PKD novel entitled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Check out Wikipedia sometime and you can find more on all of this than you’d ever want to know. For someone who only lived 54 years, PKD produced a phenomenal amount of published work. Somewhere around 40 novels of his were published (some posthumously) and enough short stories to fill a five volume set. How did he do it you ask? Amphetamines helped a bit (more on that below). He started in the early years (the 1950s) when sci-fi writers were relegated to pulp magazines. In the 60s his novel The Man in the High Tower won him awards. After Bladerunner, he became sort of a pet author for Hollywood. The Schwartzeneggar film Total Recall is based on a short story of his. Two or three other PKD works were the basis for minor films before Spielburg and Cruise collaborated for Minority Report in 2002, closely, but not entirely based on a short story of the same name. The John Woo film Paycheck came out the next year to much less critical acclaim. Upcoming is a Keanu Reaves/Winona Rider film A Scanner Darkly based on one of my favorite PKD novels of the same name. The movie is scheduled for release July 7 this year - coincidentally my 38th birthday. [Also coincidentally, I hear that Harry Potter 7 may be released on 7/7/2007 or 777 - my 39th birthday and a mighty nice stroke of luck as a marketing ploy. I digress. (Boy, do I?) But these pleasant occurrences are much nicer than what happened on 7/7/05 - the London subway bombings. My b-day seems to have become something of an eventful date in recent years and that has me a bit concerned.]

I’ve heard that the Matrix films were influenced by PKD and I can see that, but maybe it’s just become trendy to claim that connection. Personally, if Dick wrote the screenplays, I think the second Matrix would have started with Neo waking up in a psyche ward back in the reality he thought was the matrix being told he had a psychotic break with reality and that trinity, morpheus and all those guys weren’t real. And then you’d spend the next two films jumping back and forth confused, along with Neo, about whether he’s insane or the world is. That’s a bit more Dickish in my book and would have made a much better sequel IMHO instead of turning Matrix 2 and 3 into special effects vehicles with interminably long fight sequences.

Again, I digress. Where was I? Ah, yes. Mr. PKD. Well, VALIS is a mind-bender. One of his last works and part of a trilogy of religiously oriented stories. VALIS is somewhat autobiographical (exactly how much we don’t know). The main character is Horselover Fat (Phillip is from the greek for Horselover, "dick" in German is "fat"). Trust me, it gets weirder from there. This guy has an epiphany when he gets hit in the eye with a pink laser beam and freaks out, hallucinating strange images then spending some time living a divided existence, partially living in modern-day California while simultaneously living as a first-century Christian. Horselover and his friends end up on a religious quest and discover the existence of a satellite of alien origin circling the planet and sending messages to Horselover and others from VALIS, a powerful extra-terrestrial intelligence that might be God or might be what inspired the concept of God in ancient humans. Have I lost you yet? Now you see why I wish we still had PKD around to work on punching up the screenplays for Matrix sequels.

If you found that brief plot synopsis freaky, don’t forget I said this book was something of an autobiographical work. Dick allegedly had some similar hallucinatory experiences. That may not surprise you if you know he spent a lot of time in Berkely in the 60s and experimented with taking massive doses of vitamins and other pharmaceuticals and sustained much of his writing career by abusing amphetamines. During at least one of his hallucinatory experiences he was provided with detailed information about a medical condition one of his kids had. He got it checked out and doctors confirmed the condition existed even though Dick had no discernable means of knowing it was present. Hmmmm.... Whenever you feel yourself a bit too well tethered to this earth, pick up some PKD and give him a read. (Or better yet, try out his autobiography.)

So this little ole place of mine here is named in tribute to Mr. Phillip K Dick and in homage to the concept that we really don’t grasp as much about this thing called reality as we think we do. That’s significant to me given my personality type. Under Myers-Briggs, I’m an INTJ (again, you could look it up on Wikipedia). For folks like me (and we’re fairly rare), ideas and concepts are as important, if not more so, than sensory experience. To quote from one source "[INTJs] are the supreme pragmatists, who see reality as something which is quite arbitrary and made up. Thus it can be used as a tool – or ignored. Reality is quite malleable and can be changed, conquered, or brought to heel. Reality is a crucible for the refining of ideas, and in this sense, INTJs are the most theoretical of all the types." (See Please Understand Me, by Kiersey and Bates – an interesting book with a really lame title.) Phillip Dick, or what was left of his brain after he fried it for years on miscellaneous pharmaceuticals, had to have been an INTJ.
So you’re all invited to drop by for a visit now and then if you want your envelop stretched. We all need to step out of our comfort zones every once in a while and try out an idea we just can’t imagine is true. Expand your mental horizons. Get a little paranoid. Get a little mystical. Actually, I can’t guarantee that I can blow your mind on a regular basis. I guess my humility (and lack of a history of drug abuse) is why I named this "Not So Vast..." instead of sticking strictly to the VALIS nomenclature. But I do hope this can be a place of original thoughts and unique perspectives. Try and do your part and remember that there really are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy Horatio... or Horselover... or whatever your name is.